Phone Zombie Children

Portable and “wearable” computers, according to designers, are supposed to enhance the human experience.  Like science fiction cyborgs with a fitting over one eye, the user goes through the world with “augmented reality,” being fed data about what he’s seeing.  So far though, the most ubiquitous portable computer, the smart phone, seems to de-augment reality.  The user walks through the world texting, until he caroms off a lamppost that reality put in his way.

The latest generation of kids are growing up with much of their reality supplanted by screen time.  Phone apps and tablets designed for toddlers are perhaps teaching them, mostly entertaining them, certainly keeping them quiet.  The proponents of this technology brag that it enhances their learning, teaching them words and math, making learning fun. The detractors worry that these devices are raising a generation of zombies: drooling slaves to their screens, unable to have a conversation, much less hold down a job.

The scientific jury is out on this subject.  We won’t know for another 10 years how this generation will turn out.  There were similar worries for my generation, the first raised with television, and we haven’t seemed to make more zombies than before.  However, small screens are different than a TV set.  Instead of just watching it in a room and then walking away to do other things, now you bring the screen with you everywhere you go.  And you interact with it- ask it questions, communicate through it, play games with it.

One thing we do know- these devices can be addictive, which affects at least some people, which we’ll go into more below.  For your child’s mental development, well-being, and happiness, stick with the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen use, applicable to TVs, PCs, phones and tablets.  Don’t allow your child under 3 years-old to use these much at all.  This is a time of critical brain development, when the abilities to learn, to practice interactions, and to love and be loved, are hard-wired.  It’s best for the human parent to do this, since the computer as child-rearer is nowhere near a “mature technology.”

Everyone knows of a computer addict.  It’s often a teenager or young adult, raised on video games, who can’t quit.  Holed up in their rooms, they play and play, not showering or doing homework, mawing junk food without thought. They don’t get jobs or boyfriends or girlfriends.  Their parents wring their hands, torn between enabling their kids’ addiction and the horrible behavior that ensues if they cut them off.

Like drug addicts, these kids become monsters when their devices are removed. They scream that the parents hate them, and that they hate the parents back.  They break things, steal and lie, then leave the house to get their fix on a friend’s computer, or a stolen phone.  Even toddlers can display this behavior when their tablets or phones are taken away, throwing violent tantrums until the parents acquiesce.

Like we discussed above, the science is still out about how harmful screens- computers, games, and phones- are to children.  One question: will they turn only some people into zombies; like alcohol, where a few people get addicted, but most people drink in moderation?  Or are they more like heroin, so addictive that any exposure is risky?

There’s no doubt that these devices are helpful to busy parents, keeping the toddler quiet when necessary, like when waiting in an office or the DMV.  Otherwise the parent must keep the toddler quiet themselves, when simultaneously trying to have adult conversations.  But when are screens too much?  What’s the line between raising an intelligent, happy, and loving kid; and letting the screens turn the kid into a computer zombie?

While waiting for more science, The American Academy of Pediatrics has put out guidelines for children’s “media diet,” based on what we do know.  Babies under 18 months-old should have no screen time.  Kids between 18 and 24 months can have a little, but it needs to be “high quality” (think PBS), and parents should sit with the child to monitor and talk about what they’re seeing.  Kids between 3 and 5 years should max out at only one hour per day, again high quality, with the parent present.  Over 6 years, the screen time should be limited to not supplant more important activities like family meals, reading, playing with friends, and sleeping in a screen-free bedroom. 


This week’s guest columnists are Drs. Ravi Alagugurusamy and Aaron Foster, Family Practice residents at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.

The wild west was plenty dangerous: prostitution, stage coach robbery, gunfights.  No place to send your child, even with a six-shooter strapped on the hip. Yet every day kids as young as 2 years are allowed to wander into similarly threatening territory- the internet.

For small children, the internet can be a welcome distraction while you wait in line.  Then a fun song on the phone leads to a Youtube video, which leads to a game, and ends with a $1000 data bill.  Stage coach robbery indeed!  Fortunately, this scenario has an easy solution: don’t link financial access to your phone, or password or pin-code it.

Some kids are allowed to spend all day on a screen.  While there’s no obvious immediate harm, it’s an activity that’s been engineered to be addictive.  The longer developers can keep your child engaged, the more money they earn from advertisers.  If you think it’s not addictive, try taking the phone away.  Children can act just like addicts who can’t get a fix- whining, aggressive, foul-mouthed; not the nice kids they used to be!

Sites like Youtube are also designed for children as young as 2 years to operate, surfing whatever videos they like.  More disconcerting, some producers have posted questionable content aimed at younger children, often optimized so you won’t find it until you’ve gone through 9 or 10 videos first.  One parent warned us this past week of corrupted Peppa Pig videos, the characters talking about marijuana.

Policing content is a problem without a simple answer.  The multitude of platforms for internet access means a multitude of solutions.  Fortunately, most phones and browsers have methods for filtering what can be seen.  Search how to “blacklist” (block sites), or “whitelist” (allow sites) on your device or browser.

Fortunately for parents, you can do what large corporate IT departments can’t- discuss internet content and safe-surfing directly with your kids.  Watch over their shoulders.  Failing that, you can pull the plug on power, or internet service.

Back to our wild west analogy from above- the dare.  Quick-draw gunfights often involved one assailant goading the other into combat.  Afraid of being seen as cowardly, the reluctant fighter was drawn in, and one or both would end up wounded or dead.  The modern internet version of this: the Tide-Pod Challenge.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, this involved videos daring teens to eat Tide-Pod dishwashing detergent packets.  Then Emergency Departments around the country began to see these potentially lethal cases, and most videos became blocked.  Other harmful video-generated pranks: children creating and inhaling chlorine gas, drinking antifreeze, and running cars in enclosed spaces.  Parents must teach children that following instructions from strangers on the internet is just as dangerous as with strangers on the street.

Despite blacklists, history searches, and firewalls to limit your internet content, teens can be a special worry.  Most teenagers can find work-arounds, on the net or from friends, that you might not know.  After all, unlike most parents, they’ve grown up with the net; they’ve used it their whole lives.  In the end, there’s no better solution to knowing what your teen is watching, than talking about it with them.

Another internet problem for teens is social media bullying.  The net offers the ability to bully away from school or other social activities, where the bully might be caught.  Also, social media can magnify bullying.  Instead of the bully egging on a jeering handful of lackeys, the lackeys on-line can number in the hundreds.  Imagine your kid being laughed at by a crowded auditorium- a nightmare often depicted on film and TV.  Social media easily creates a real-life equivalent.  An even worse nightmare: in 2014, a 17 year-old girl boasted affiliation with a Chicago gang, and revealed her address, on social media.  Affiliation true or not, rival gang members killed her 3 blocks from her home.

Today’s children are the first generation with these internet worries; parents aren’t equipped to deal with them from their own childhood experience.  Social media, while being a great new way to communicate, also begats new problems.  Parents need to learn the new solutions.  And the old solution too- talking these things through with their kids.